Barclays Premier League 2014/15 – a Social League Table

Author: Jamie Watson, Strategist BBH London & BBH Sport

Imagine if your brand’s fans, or at least customers, had not even looked at a competitor since they were 8 years old.

They sing songs about your brand, they know everything about your history, they talk about you to their friends in the pub and spend vast amounts of money on your products – no matter how unhappy you might make them.

Well for football teams this is a reality. Jealous much?

So it must be easy when it comes to social & online content for football clubs? An engaged fanbase of millions who simply want more content? Well maybe, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is doing it well. And amongst those that are, a social media arms race seems to be appearing. Because of this besotted fanbase, there is a pressure to perform.

So let’s have a look back at who put in a social media shift during the 2014/15 season, and see if there are any lessons we can learn from their performance:

1) Integrated Team of the season – Southampton

(Disclaimer: I’m a lifelong Southampton supporter so please excuse the shameful bias.)

Southampton are the one club that I follow on every platform. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Vine, their socialised website and even Snapchat. And what impresses me most is not just the fact that they are on all of these channels, but the individual channel roles they all have. YouTube is in place for more premium video content, with highlights from games, live streams of U21 games, player interviews and additional content (more on that later). Twitter provides live updates on games for fans not there. Facebook provides a more official platform, whilst pointing to other channels. And then there’s Snapchat where Saints ran a treasure hunt campaign to give away their new shirt, behind the scenes game-day content (complete with MS Paint scribbles) as well as funny snippets from the players.

So, Southampton, well done on a strong team performance this season.

Learning: Have a presence across every channel but be specific to that channel

2) Backroom of the season – Manchester City

Due to the billions of dollars of that have been poured into the sky blue side of Manchester in recent years means that Man City have now developed a global fanbase of millions – and a couple of trophies to boot. So how do you keep said fanbase entertained? You give them more.

Head over to Man City’s YouTube channel for a wealth of content. There’s tunnel cam giving fans a truly unique insight as the players go through their pre-match rituals, pump each other up and try not to scare the mascots. Other content includes interviews with other staff members discussing players, a freekick masterclass with Lampard, showboating sessions as well as leaning on their Man City ‘family’ by borrowing New York FC’s David Villa to go head to head against the likes of Silva & Augero – pulling in a new fanbase. This variety of content appeals to hardcore City fans who will sit and watch a 2 hour training session to young fans watching SuperFrank’s masterclasses to a broader football audience who love to watch a bit of showboating (see the success of multiple showboating instagram accounts).

Learning: Give your hardcore fans more. More behind the scenes, more insight, more of what they love.

3) International team of the season – Manchester Utd

One of the challenges that the big clubs are facing is how to satisfy their global fanbase. Clubs such as Man Utd have a truly global fan base, selling 1.5m shirts worldwide and having a Facebook fanbase of 65m. The problem is the vast majority of these fans will never go to Old Trafford to see a game. So clubs are using online content to help these global fans connect with the club no matter where they are in the world.

Last season Man Utd used Google+ to bring their global fans to Old Trafford and put them in the front row. Through Google+ live stream of fans watching the game onto the digital hoardings surrounding the pitch.

Through shirt sales & global sponsorship deals clubs have to think of more ways to keep these fans loyal and engaged with the club – no matter where they are.

Learning: Engage with your audience, not just your customers

4) Personalities of the season – Arsenal

The image of flash, greedy and arrogant millionaire footballers doesn’t do players or the clubs any favours. A few years ago the only exposure we had to players was awkward post match interviews or press conferences – social media has opened up a new window into the lives of players.

Many clubs are using this to show their players in a different light – I like to call it footLOLs, but that’s just me – whether it’s Arsenal pranking their stars or playing up to their reputations as part of Paddy Power/Stonewall’s homophobia campaign.

Southampton have also been in on the act (I warned you). To announce the launch of their new kit Southampton invited comedian Tom Davis to star as Dr Barry Gale, a ‘colour and pattern psychologist’ in an Office-style mockumentary. This content shows players personalities, appeals to a broader audience and reflect content on the platform – not just other clubs YouTube content.

Learning: Don’t be precious – be funny, be real and be human.


So there we have it, a few highlights from the season gone by. A strong season for the likes of Arsenal, Man City and Southampton. It will be interesting to see whether other Premier League heavy hitters such as Chelsea or Liverpool can match their performance next season, or will we see a surprise from one of the smaller teams next season? And what about the clubs like Newcastle and Hull whose relationship with their fans can currently be described as ‘rocky’ – will they use social media to get back in the good books of their supporters?

But as for this season, the winner is…


Fans from any club in any country are the real winners. Every day they get to enjoy seeing entertaining, unique and insightful content (though not all at the same time!) from the clubs they love – and ones they hate.

And can brands compete? Well, in all honestly they can’t right now – no brand has the type of fanbase I described up top. But they can definitely learn.


Election Special! Big Data Makes its Mark

Author: Thomas Gwin, Data Strategy Director, BBH London

Mapping the Polls - from the Guardian's interactive electoral data set

Mapping the Polls – from the Guardian’s interactive electoral data set

As the UK general election draws ever closer, many news organisations have picked up on the fact that political parties are using software to better understand voter audiences through data mining. Some are even going so far as to call this the “first true data driven election”.

Whilst much of the rhetoric in these news articles centres around how political parties are expertly using data as a secret weapon to seduce voters, the hidden truth of the matter is that whether considered through the lens of politics or marketing, the business of turning data into competitive advantage is a tricky one. And one that advertising knows only too well about.

Brands, of course have invested in sophisticated information systems to map, classify and prioritise target audiences for decades. Segmentations based on value, behaviour, attitudes, needs – you name it. More segmentations, and even segmentations of segmentations. Deeper and deeper insight, more and more powerful, but equally more and more fractured.

And at the heart of this lurks an internal tension between brand vision and audience understanding. The best strategists will know that these are not necessarily perfectly correlated, but will also know that ignoring either will result in compromise.

This same tension manifests itself in politics between political vision and voter understanding. But for politics, this tension arguably carries a far greater risk. To understand why, we must first return to how exactly parties are using data and what consequences one of these aspects could be having.

If the message is malleable, what does this say about a political party’s identity and values?

Data isn’t just providing political parties with insight, it is also allowing them to model voter intention and, crucially, provide them with the intelligence to adapt campaign messaging to individual profiles. For instance, what campaign message should Party A prioritise to conquest Party B voters who are potential “switchers”? Is it immigration, or is it the NHS?

This is not simply about maximising efficiencies (such as concentrating volunteer efforts on marginals or improving overall campaign targeting) – by adopting data, parties are also wading into the realm of predictive analytics.

Now in the world of marketing, Google suggest and Amazon recommended products are old news. With each passing day, evidence of organisations upping their marketing investment on initiatives like “intent-based” and “personalisation” accumulates. But in the less commercially agile world of politics, this is a huge step, directly imported from recent election campaign trends in the US.

But there is a vital difference here. Where brands use predictive analytics to (hopefully) better serve customers and be more useful, political parties can use predictive analytics to adapt their messaging to convert voter share.

But if the message is malleable, what does this say about a political party’s identity and values?

Some may say, this is nothing new. That politicians have always toyed with messaging and targeting at election time based on voter information, stretching the limits of how they can acceptably position big issues without contradicting party manifesto. And in a sense this is absolutely true. But what is also true is that the scale of intelligence now feeding these decisions is unprecedented. And the fact that this intelligence – so data lubricated and insight rich – is set against a backdrop of deep political disaffection, risks further aggravating public disillusionment with politicians and the political process.

Brands and parties alike have to adapt to people

Well if anything, brands understand the need for the brand idea, the long term, enduring vision that stems from a fundamental truth. Of course, this can and should flex with culture, but it must remain consistent. Otherwise consumers stop believing in you and stop trusting you.

Brands cannot remain static and endlessly pure – to the contrary, they are in a constant process of evolution, ebb and flow, plugged into the cultural zeitgeist which they tap into and also feed from.

And this does certainly not mean ignoring audience plurality, but it does mean that creating stand out aspirational stories that transcend differences is superior to developing powerful but micro-managed communication to suit heterogeneity.

The truth of the matter is that brands and parties alike have to adapt to people. But where the best brands are able to use data and predictive analytics to stay true to themselves and even better themselves, parties risk being perceived as selling out and losing the foundation values upon which they were built.

And the sharp, concise instrument that is data, with all of its clarity and processing muscle, is not alone able to solve this tension and afford parties the clear path they so desire to drive voters to the ballot box. At least not yet.


What Platform, Which Brand?

Author: Damola Timeyin, Social Strategist BBH London

Every year arrives with a glut of predictions about which technologies will experience ‘hockey stick growth’, which will ‘jump the shark’ and how brands will exploit these ‘new frontiers’. We as marketers we are as guilty as anyone of creating more questions about how brands should approach the opportunities, than we provide coherent answers. The result is a mixed bag of bold attempts, questionable executions and the occasional triumph.

The cynic in every marketer will argue just because a brand can, doesn’t mean they should, it’s haloed consumer space after all. The pragmatist, may accept the new order of things, acknowledge the potential and recognize the shift in consumer attitudes towards brands in these spaces.

Whether a cynic or pragmatist, before making the leap, a commitment should be made to apply better judgement when deciding where and how to proceed. Not just for the sake of the brand, but for the sake of the consumer on the receiving end of our communications.


Consumers are more likely to embrace brands who bring something complimentary to the party, whether that’s content or an experience, delivered in a way that reflects the consumer’s behaviour on that platform.

Platforms themselves are making it easier for brands to add value, Snapchat being a recent example of a platform that quickly embraced branded content and experiences, by building a non intrusive means for brands to communicate with users, through “Snapchat Discover”.

Whilst there’s an app for everything, there isn’t yet an emoji for every feeling. So recently Mentos made an appearance in messaging platforms by creating branded emoticons, which helped people to express these feelings in conversations in this space. Not only did these ‘Ementicons’ meet a need in a way that was in keeping with platform norms, it helped the brand to communicate with an audience on a platform where it’s difficult to cut through.

BBH’s latest campaign for Clarks’, ‘From Rats To Rudeboys: The story of the Clarks Desert Boot’ is an example of an idea with cultural relevance with a clear purpose; to re-establish the connection between the brand and an iconic shoe.

The cynic in us may see the campaign’s use of WhatsApp*, as an opportunistic choice, borne from the desire to connect with ‘millennials’ rather than the best way to deliver documentary content.

However the pragmatist considers the core of the idea; cultural stories from the past told from first person perspective today. Assess its components; stories told in film, audio, copy, photo and music formats over a fixed period. And crucially evaluates the audience behaviour, young individuals predominantly consume information about culturally significant events from peers and trusted news sources via mobile platforms.

Taking these factors into account, the experience of receiving a narrative of real life events, by the people who were there, would be diminished if there was no sense of immediacy. The user journey would be fragmented if content for a single narrative was distributed through multiple channels. The opportunity to personalise the experience lost, if there was no means to communicate directly with thousands at once. Using a platform a platform like WhatsApp, allows the brand to create immediacy, deliver a seamless and direct user experience, with mass personalisation that no other platform could facilitate.

What platform is right for what brand? As with most questions, the answer is of course, it depends. In this case it depends on the what the brand wants to do.

*To experience the final instalment of the ‘From Rats to Rudeboys’ experience, WhatsApp Jamaican Dj and Clarks Desert Boot trader, Major Stitch, on 07481495645 to hear his story.


A Desire to be Less Desirable

Author, Shea Warnes, Social Strategist, BBH London

Instaglasses concept by Markus Gerke

The problem with having a conversation is “it takes place in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say” explained Sherry Turkle at a not-so-recent Ted Talk. That’s not the case online though. Facebook posts, Tweets, Instagrams allow us to curate, edit and filter what we want to say in pursuit of personal promotion. Ephemeral media allows us to share the moment and not live with them forever! 

But it can be awfully exhausting. Especially, if like me, you don’t have a good eye for a good photo. There are particular times when sometimes we just want to share experiences with our friends. Unfiltered, immediate real-time moments. Moments that are being championed by the new wave of closed and/or transient  products such as Whatsapp, Kik and Snapchat.

For brands, this provides exciting new opportunities to engage fans. Especially with reports that 700 million messages are being shared daily on Snapchat and 38 billion on Whatsapp. Despite these overwhelming numbers, only a handful of brands are really having a good crack at it. Surprising really when so many brand talk about wanting to build genuine relationships with our customers, because what better place than the channels where people feel most comfortable being their genuine selves?

The biggest barrier for many brands wanting to build a presence is a lack of insight. Without this how are we supposed to know the content that resonates best with our audience, or even who they are? Increasingly there are studies such as Sumpto’s study on student habits which are providing that insight. In the mean time, brands are taking a leap of faith to know what content to produce and how to behave.

Below are some starting points to get your brand in the right direction…

Be a nice surprise – I’m on Snapchat because it gives me a different way to be have an entertaining conversation with friends. Unexpected and at times silly content that simply serves to provide moments of amusement during the drops in my day. Brands wanting to engage with me should aim to have a dialogue that shows them in a refreshing light. It is intentionally ephemeral, so brands should feel comfortable exercising their personality more through less formal content and giving access to parts of the brand a fan would not normally ever experience.

Be a real person – The content I receive on Kik is from people at their most unguarded. They are not trying to add a filter of coolness and I’d expect that approach from any brand I followed. Have a look at MLB’s Snapchat strategy who rotate account ownership to different players and staff to keep the narrative interesting and provide a more rounded experience of the sport.

MLB Snapchat

Be effortlessly charming – Use it as another broadcast channel for your print campaign and I’m out. There are platforms like Facebook which are better geared for driving sales. This is important on closed platforms particularly as the ambition should be to add value without the expectancy of an immediate exchange – that’s not to say there aren’t business opportunities to be had! Whatsapp, for example, has the functionality to provide customer service better than a tweet ever could.

Don’t expect to turn into Taco Bell overnight but start with good insight (and good manners) and someday your conversation should begin to promote itself.

Winners, Losers & Learnings – the first truly social Brit Awards

Author: Alex Walker-Sage, Social Engagement Director, BBH London

Big. Noisy. Full of celebs. LIVE! Music and Entertainment together, in harmony. With the potential for stuff to go wrong. And including a new Twitter vote mechanic half-way through the show. Wednesday night’s new, improved, social 2014 Brit Awards had all the ingredients necessary to provide the perfect opportunity to take a look at the social media landscape and see where we’re at. This is the sort of big, one-off event moment that the twitterati love right?

Well, overall, yeah. The picture’s a pretty glossy and impressive one. For one, Twitter revealed on Thursday that the event was the most-tweeted about TV show in the UK ever, with the live TV broadcast attracting 2.17m posts about the show, and a further c.2m messages sent in relation to the social vote.

It, as you might expect, smashed the social stats of all other the other shows that aired to smithereens:

Verdict: The Brits won.

And the social vote? That, predictably – due to the number of their teen fans heavily-reliant on their social channels for day-to-day survival – was won by One Direction, with their fanatical fan-base ensuring they took home the gong for Best British Video.

Verdict: 1D won.

The introduction of a live and transparent voting element via Twitter was a pretty obvious ploy to encourage involvement from the audience and ensure the event impacted those on other platforms who may not have been watching, or frankly even care it was on. And, whilst an obvious next step in award-voting terms, there’s something pretty exciting here about a live, commercial event brand, with global reach, handing the power over to its audience for chunk of it’s output. Ok, there was pretty much no risk involved, but the fact the power dynamic was shifted for a small window of time into the audiences’ hands is to be applauded. The immediacy of social should see this type of moment become common-place across all types of different pieces of traditional ‘broadcast’ output.

Verdict: Twitter won.

We all know then that social is at it’s best when allowing transparency and a bit of a shift of power to the masses to deliver powerful, cumulative results that can, ideally, make big stuff happen. The Brit Award sponsors MasterCard know this, their PR agency apparently did not, sending out emails to journalists asking that they guarantee coverage of their client in event write-ups in exchange for their attendance. Cue much discontent. Cue twitter rebellion.

A rebellion that led to their paid-for Twitter trend pointing people to an article dissecting the whole sorry social mess in the greatest of detail.

A quick analysis of social sentiment for MasterCard (the entire brand, not just that specific to the Brits debacle) across Twitter from Wednesday to today is as follows:

Positive: 3%

Neutral: 71%

Negative: 26%

Verdict: MasterCard lost.

Clearly there’s a whole load of things that are wrong with this approach but the number one and two take-outs should be about knowing your audience and maintaining transparency. Then there are loads of other learnings around having amazing ideas, being consistent with them, ensuring they match up across all media, and are executed perfectly and in a timely fashion. For all of these (and much, much more) come talk to us.

As a final point, and because I love Daft Punk, it’s worth touching on how successful brands can be when they get their involvement in events like this just right. On brand, irreverent, and perfectly pitched for the media it played out in, this effort from Paddy Power doesn’t really require much more explanation:


A similar Twitter sentiment analysis to that described above shows the following:

Positive: 36%

Neutral: 57%

Negative: 7%

Verdict: Paddy Power won.


  • Twitter, enabling real-time interaction and engagement that can effect real change in live content output in particular, is only going to grow in importance, and it’s vital that brands navigate their way through the noise to achieve real cut-through whilst maintaining transparency

  • Whilst MasterCard was everywhere in the few weeks leading into the awards, as well as on the night itself, Paddy Power proved it’s not necessarily about ‘owning’ the event (and all the associated costs that come with that), but more about cutting through the noise at the right time with a strong creative idea, well-executed. 1D fans did it by all coming together at a single point in time. The Brits and Twitter did it through enabling audience involvement, offering a single point of interaction in what could otherwise be a traditional broadcast event. In the right hands, social can and should deliver a powerful perspective.


On empathetic vs emphatic brand leadership


I have always been a fan of observational comedy. Before I knew what Planning was. Before I even knew what I wanted to be. But reassuringly I once was told that good planners are like good comedians, in that they pick up on insightful human truths and deliver them in a captivating way. If I become the Peter Kay of Planning one day, I’ll die happy.

I recently saw the comedienne Sarah Milligan’s tour broadcast on TV. She had a brilliant phrase which stuck with me. “In life people are either bumper cars or dodgems”. Of course they are the same thing. But the point she was making was some people prefer to navigate life, whilst others prefer to push from the front. Personally, I lean more to the former. But beyond that, it got me thinking about how I view brands.

My whole life I’ve always been attracted to brands that set out to include me, as opposed to those that showed me the way. Growing up I was never taken with Nike ads, nor with Apple, nor Virgin. Instead I always warmed to brands like Dulux, Tesco, Ikea, Coca Cola and British Airways. The deliberately inclusive brands that made me feel welcome and at home.

Our CEO Ben Fennell posted here recently asking ‘what kind of leader are you?’ His point was that the business world goes round thanks to quite different types of leadership. Are you a nurturer or a visionary, an operator or a warrior and so on? And the same is true, it strikes me, for brands that are leaders in their categories.

Judging on how they behave and make me feel, I believe there are two classic categories of brand leader:  Empathetic vs Emphatic. The former want a dialogue and seek to communicate in a way that relates closely to their audiences’ lives. Emphatic leaders, by contrast, tend to enshrine their own vision and qualities. ‘Buy me and you’re saying something about who you are’, says the Emphatic brand. ‘Buy me because we understand who you are’, replies the Empathetic brand.

Source: Michelle Gilson, BBH

Of course I’m not saying one is better than the other. Both friends have benefits. While Empathetic leaders offer a caring, accepting and optimistic tone of voice, the empathic brands will ooze confidence, inspiration and authority. They can be useful, even a source of inspiration, in different ways:

Source: Michelle Gilson, BBH

And while empathetic leaders behave in a fun, inclusive way, emphatic leaders always feel dynamic, adventurous and unpredictable:


My Dad used to say “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” when it comes to picking a partner. But truthfully that analogy feels too extreme when applied to our relationships with brands (probably due to significantly reduced commitment when it comes to purchase and consumption).

And yet I’d wager most of us do want both spicy and safe in our lives. And often we won’t look to one person to provide everything, we’ll pick and choose friends, family and a partner that offer different qualities. And, accordingly, even thought I’m an Empathetic brand lover at heart, I confess I shall probably get some glee next time I’m forced to wear my Nike’s to the gym, or light up my iPhone. And further more, may even attempt to bump some cars next time at the fair, rather than dodge them.


Cows in Space: a question of sustainability at #sxswi

The second of series of reports from Austin, by a few lucky BBH SXSW survivors.

Author: Helen Lawrence, Strategist, BBH Labs & BBH London

The most recurring topic of conversation in Austin during SXSW isn’t the future of technology, it isn’t the principles of responsive design and it certainly isn’t what makes something viral. It’s meat. What meat to have in your breakfast taco, what meat to choose for your lunchtime ribs and what meat should top your dinnertime hot dog (I can’t believe Tim didn’t mention this in his SXSW reflections!). This is a town dominated by BBQ joints and smoking shacks. I fear that after five days there I may have the incredibly sexy combination of scurvy and gout:

Helen goes to a rodeo

Helen goes to a rodeo

However, we have a problem. One hundred thousand years ago humans still needed 2000 calories a day to function. Back then, to produce that 2000 calories we’d get through 1800 to find and produce something to nibble on. Fast forward to today’s brisket loving era and it takes 200,000 calories to produce those same 2000 calories. Our food production habits are screwed up. We waste everything: energy, resources and it even the food itself once we’ve got it to that juicy, edible point. It’s not at all sustainable. We’re messing it up, and we’re doing it quickly.

So – who is the obvious person to turn to in order to solve this problem? An astronaut of course. Nothing beats an astronaut. Ahem.

The 100 Year Starship project is using the question of interstellar space travel to get to an answer:

“We exist to make the capability of human travel beyond our solar system a reality within the next 100 years. We unreservedly dedicate ourselves to identifying and pushing the radical leaps in knowledge and technology needed to achieve interstellar flight, while pioneering and transforming breakthrough applications that enhance the quality of life for all on Earth.”

If we’re going to have to consider exploration outside of our solar system we’re going to have think a little beyond a simply bigger rocket. One self sustaining pod hurtling through the sky; it has to keep a bunch of humans alive for a century, stop them killing each other and prevent them from getting hungry.

The space race in the 60s was a tangible one: getting to the moon is a challenge that could be imagined and solved. The 100 Year Starship Project wants to set a challenge that trickles down solutions into our own fuzzy planet in the same way. The space race has given us some of the biggest everyday technologies we use now: scratch resistant lenses, GPS and water filters for example. By posing some of the biggest societal and sustainability questions out there and considering how we’d achieve them to last 100 years in space, we can hope for properly realistic solutions to the things we’re messing up at the moment.

Image via 100 Year Starship Project

Image via 100 Year Starship Project

Meat is a big one, clothes are another. It’s a terribly energy intensive hobby. We make too many, we own too many, we wash too many and we don’t recycle nearly enough. 100 years at our current clothing rates would need a lot of wardrobes up on our space ship, not to mention cotton fields, plastics factories and silk worms. We can’t take clothes to space, despite them being such a core part of our creative identity as humans – one solution put forward by the 100 Year Starship project includes reusable sheets that we project clothes onto, allowing us to change them whenever we like.

Back to the bovines. As much as I love the idea of cows in space, wearing little cow shaped astronaut helmets, it just can’t happen. ‘Fake meat’ companies are popping up all over the place, even Twitter co founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams are investing. That’s one possible solution for our 100 Year Spaceship. What else is there?

I like the 100 Year Starship project. It frames a problem into a great story. Mae Jemison, a brilliant astronaut, told the SXSW audience that we should tell better stories, ones that inspire and ones that can bring about social change. The project neatly frames sustainability into something we can picture. There are no cheats when you’re somewhere outside of Alpha Centauri. So many of our so called sustainable solutions aren’t that at all. We feel we’re doing well when actually the problem is just popping up somewhere else. You can’t do that on a spaceship.

This makes me ruminate a bit on brand strategy – we talk a lot here about strategy being the art of sacrifice. What would you sacrifice in your brand armoury if forced to focus on the essentials? And would your brand get a spot on the starship in the first place? Is it ducking and diving, pushing superfluous issues elsewhere? Perhaps not being quite as sustainable or transparent as it could be? Whack it in a bubble and put it in space: it’s a good way to test it.

I’m excited about the 100 Year Spaceship. The hippies and the astronauts are getting it on. And damn, it’s even sexier than gout.

I Will Not Follow

Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London

In 1983 Celtic troubadours The Waterboys released a song called “I Will Not Follow”. I’m pretty sure it was a response to U2’s anthemic “I Will Follow”. Answer songs have a rather mixed history (though I’m grateful to the category for providing us with Roxanne Shante and Althea & Donna…), and I suspect “I Will Not Follow” was not The Waterboys’ finest moment  Nonetheless, I admired their courage in taking on the emerging Titans of Rock. And I loved the sentiment. The determination not to go with the flow, not to follow the masses, not to get lost in the crowd. A passionate rejection of passivity. A celebration of the power of negative thinking.

When I was in my last year at College, thoughts turned to possible careers. It was the late ’80s and , in the wake of the Big Bang, there was a magnetic pull towards the Big Job in The City. It was natural, obvious, exciting. The dark satanic thrills .. I recall my decision not to apply for a City role felt more significant to me than any subsequent active career choice.

I used to interview young graduates looking for a job. I found that their CVs were curiously similar. When asked what they’d achieved in life, they’d say they’d travelled to Asia, captained the hockey team, and they liked skiing and reading. But when one asked what the candidate had chosen not to do, more singular answers were forthcoming.

Some of our most important decisions are the paths we choose not to take,the roads we refuse to travel. Our lives can often be best understood by mapping the things we didn’t do, the words we didn’t say. Perhaps we should more often consider a brand’s unspoken truth, quiet regret. Because in its silence and inaction may reside its strength and identity.

‘If you gave me a pound for all the moments I’ve missed,
And I took dancing lessons for all the girls I should’ve kissed.
I’d be a millionaire, I’d be Fred Astaire’
ABC – “Valentine’s Day”

My first job after College was as a Qualitative Researcher. ‘Brand elasticity’ projects were very much in vogue. Could this everyday family margarine perhaps be a cheese, or a biscuit, or a ready meal or a jam? With a sip of Chardonnay and a nod of assent, my respondents would consistently give the green light to a whole host of reckless innovations and insane brand extensions. And over the years the song has remained the same, even if the lyrics have changed. Could my brand be an experience, a portal, a membership club? Could it be a hotel, a hub, a content provider? Could it release a clothing line with rugged check shirts, boxer shorts and rain resistant outerwear? Isn’t my brand more a lifestyle choice than a yellow fat?

Curiously perhaps, research respondents find it easy to endorse our grandest aspirations. But then it’s not their money and maybe they’re just being polite. Sometimes it seems we need to be better at defining the limits of our ambition, at identifying the red line, the point beyond which we will not go. Sometimes we need to demonstrate more restraint, more discipline, more negativity.

Many Clients are instinctively suspicious of the negative perspective. Surely it betrays a lack of confidence, enthusiasm, ambition? In order to sustain consistency they develop processes and platforms, models and matrices, funnels and formats. But best demonstrated practice is often worst demonstrated imagination. Over the years negative thinking has inspired truly exceptional communication by the likes of Dunlop, Audi, Marmite, Volvo, Stella and Guinness. What would a world be like without this brand? Who are its enemies? What is its weakness? Whenever one is confronted by the bland, boring or undifferentiated, it’s always helpful to reach for a liberating ‘not’.

Of course in the age of the social web possibilities seem infinite. We want campaigns to be all embracing, 360º, holistic. We want to tick off platforms like some bizarre game of I Spy. We want all the colours in all the sizes. Yet I wonder if the democratisation of knowledge and opinion creates a kind of accelerated conformity: the Consensus of Crowds. Surely brand behaviour on the web would benefit from a little more negative thinking? Perhaps more discipline and self denial? Maybe we need to see more of the brand that likes to say ‘no’, the brand that will not follow…

Every morning I face the horrors of commuting as I change Tube at Kings Cross. Crowded, crushed, compressed. Downbeat, dour, depressed. In order to get onto my teeming southbound train into the centre of town, I walk along the less cluttered northbound platform. Periodically empty northbound trains stop and then recommence their journey out to the quiet leafy suburbs. I’ve always promised myself that one day I’ll jump on one of those empty northbound trains, make my way to the end of the line, find a caff and settle down to The Guardian, bacon, eggs, tea and toast. One day…

(Don’t) Turn Your Back On Me

Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London

I attended an Edvard Munch show at the Tate Modern. Dark, melancholy, awkward stuff. Angst, loneliness, jealousy. A difficult relationship with society in general and women in particular.

It was striking that he painted quite a lot of pictures of women with their backs to the viewer. A powerful expression of exclusion, loneliness, unrequited love.

I spent my youth being turned away from London’s elite nightspots. Perhaps it was the sleeveless plaid shirt, the white towelling socks, the caked on Country Born hair gel. But the bitter sense of disappointment hasn’t left me. I can taste it now. And I learned more about clubbing from Spandau Ballet videos than actual experience…

‘He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’
Handel, Messiah

As a young executive I was invited to apply for an Amex card. I applied and was duly rejected. Naturally I was confused and disappointed and I never spoke to them again. I’m sure consumers often feel a similar sense of exclusion from brands. Refusal and denial are shaming, embarrassing. The fear of rejection is almost as powerful as rejection itself. And then there are the coded gestures, the arcane language, the gender and cultural specific semiotics. The feeling that you don’t belong, that you’re not welcome here. It’s a private conversation, you wouldn’t understand.

I guess that’s why strategists so often recommend that brands are more open, inviting, transparent. We want brands to look us in the eye, to reach out from the canvas with a knowing glance and a welcoming smile. Easier said than done, of course.

Yet the turned back does not have to be all bad.

The Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi often painted a solitary woman with her back to the viewer. She goes about her daily routine in a quiet middle class home, lost in private thought. Hammershoi’s subjects seem more loved than feared. This distinctive reverse view gains its power in part from being so unusual. But also from the sense of intrusion on private time. The sense of seeing, but not being seen. It’s a little awkward, but also intriguing. Am I encountering her truest self, her identity freed of relationships, social constraints and concerns about appearance?

It reminds me of the oft’ cited quote from George Bernard Shaw: ‘Ethics is what you do when no one is looking.’ (I’ve uncovered versions of this quote from many sources. Henry Ford said ‘quality means doing it right when no one’s looking’. And of course, most recently Bob Diamond suggested ‘culture is how we behave when no one’s watching.’)

So how do brands behave when no one is looking? What would the brand encountered in a quiet room be up to? Would we find it dutifully engaged in customer-centric endeavours? Would its jaunty personality be sustained when there’s no one to impress? Would we discover an honest engagement with issues of citizenship and responsibility?

I’m worried that we’d most likely find the brand plotting a marketing and PR plan. I’m worried that in business as in politics too much thought nowadays is given to how things will play, how they will be perceived and reported. I suspect that too often the brand’s instinctive ethical and commercial compass has been replaced by recourse to brand image tracking and favourability ratings.

I appreciate this may be a curious thing for an adman to say. I should perhaps celebrate the triumph of modern marketing, the inevitable victory of perception in the All Seeing Age. Perhaps like a modern celebrity the smile must always be on, the guard must always be up. But it still makes me a little melancholy…

And what of Agencies? How do we behave when no one’s looking?

We are often perceived as conventions of feckless youth and superannuated yuppies. And I confess I was a little uncomfortable when Clients first started plugging in laptops, decanting lattes and working at our offices. I worried that they’d disapprove of our timekeeping, that they’d be offended by our cussing.

But as more Clients have made the Agency their mid-week home, I think the Agency has benefitted. The Embedded Client often sees passion, industry, talent and integrity.They get to see our truest self. And it’s not as bad as they, or we, may have expected.

In the words of the great Brit Soul luminary, David Grant…‘I’ve been watching you watching me. I’ve been liking you, Baby, liking me…’